Interview with Leila Boujnane

January 4, 2011

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

A decade ago Leila Boujnane was in medical school in France, studying to become a doctor. If you'd told her then that she would be involved with technology, she would have laughed and would have said you didn't know what you were talking about.

Leila Boujnane

Leila Boujnane is the co-founder and CEO of Idée Inc., a firm focused on large scale image search. Idée launched TinEye the world's first reverse image search engine. Our goal is to build useful image search solutions and to make the world's images searchable.
Leila began her career in software development at Algorithmics a financial risk management software company and brings a decade of software experience to her role at Idée. She is a supporter of Canada's startup community and a search innovation leader who has been featured in various publications including Canadian Business, the Globe and Mail, Fast Company, The New York Times, CBC, The Guardian. She is also a novice ultra runner and terrible photographer.

Leila Boujnane

Transcript: 

An Interview with Leila Boujnane CEO, Idee, Inc.

Date: January 4, 2011 Interview with Leila Boujnane

Lee Kennedy: Hi, this is Lee Kennedy. I'm the CEO of Boulder Search, and a board member for NCWIT, the National Center for Women & Information Technology. This is part of a series of interviews that we're having with just fabulous entrepreneurs. These are women who have started IT companies in a variety of sectors, and all who have just fabulous stories to tell us about being entrepreneurs. With me today is Larry Nelson, from W3W3.com. Hey Larry. How are you?

Larry Nelson: Oh, I'm magnificent. I'm excited about this interview. This whole series has been just terrific. We get all kinds of people from the entrepreneurs to the executives, and many young people who are looking into getting into this kind of business.

Lee: Great. Today we're interviewing Leila Boujnane, the CEO of Idee. That's French for "idea." Hi Leila. Welcome.

Leila Boujnane: Hello. Hello.

Lee: Now did I get your last name right?

Leila: That is correct. Leila Boujnane. It's too many Ns, but yes, that is correct.

Lee: Great. Idee's goal is to make images searchable. Idee develops advanced image identification and visual search software. The technology looks at patterns and pixels of images and videos to make each image or frame searchable by color, similarity, or exact duplicates. Did I get that pretty close?

Leila: That is very close. That's pretty much exactly what we do. Everything that we do is based on actually looking at what we call an asset. That could be an image or a video. But we'll look at it differently. Instead of looking at a text file or looking at a keyword, or looking at what describes that image, we actually look at what makes that image, so all the pixels that are actually making that image or the frame in a video that you're looking at.

Lee: That is so interesting.

Larry: That really is.

Lee: Tell us a little bit about what happening at Idee lately.

Leila: Well, we launched, I would say, the world's most awesome reverse image search engine. I think it is still the largest reverse image search engine out there. It's called Pineye. So basically what you do is you give it an image and it indexes that image on the fly. By indexing, we mean it actually creates a unique fingerprint for that image based on what it sees in the image. Then it compares it to our image index, and it tells you in real time where that image is actually appearing on the web.

Lee: Wow.

Leila: It does that very seamlessly. If you've played with it, it's as simple as, drop your file here and get results there. It's doing that using image recognition, with a pretty, pretty large index. Our current image index, and these are the images that we've crawled from the web and indexed, is actually close to two billion. We haven't gotten to two billion, but it's very, very close.

Lee: Wow.

Larry: That's with a B?

Leila: Yes...

Larry: Wow.

Leila: ...With a B, with a big B. Upper-case B. It's been a really, really exciting undertaking for us, because it really brought what we call image recognition-based search to everyone. Anyone that is used to actually going online and searching for an image has been doing that using keywords. When you have this in your head and you say, "Where did this appear?" or, "Who created this?" or, "Where can I get more of this image than I already have?" There wasn't really a mechanism to do that. This was a very good way to actually put image recognition out there and have it solve problems daily for people.

Larry: Wow, that's fantastic. One of the questions, of course, that Lucy Sanders likes us to always ask is, how did you first get into technology? If I could couple that with another question, is, what technologies, in addition to the wonderful things you're doing, that you think are real cool?

Leila: Well, how I got into technology was completely by accident. I tell people all the time, you can't underestimate the power of luck or accidents, or just what makes you do something when it's not really what you planned. If you had told me more than a decade ago that I would be in technology, I would have just looked at you and laughed and said you didn't know what you were talking about.

Lee: Wow.

Leila: Because I actually was in med school studying medicine, in Bordeaux, in France, to become a doctor.

Lee: Oh my gosh.

Leila: I was curious about technology and computers and so on, but I was more of a science-mathematics mind rather than an actual engineering or software type of person. Much to the dismay of my family and parents, I decided that medicine was not for me. I just completely out of the blue stopped my studies and decided to take a year off to figure out what was it that I was really going to be doing, after having grown up... I thought my entire life that when I grew up, I want to be a doctor. I actually never questioned that. Nothing besides medicine ever entered my mind. But when I was studying it, I just realized that it just was not for me. When I took a year off, I actually moved from France to Canada, and completely by accident, met a group of individuals who were starting a software company here in Toronto. They were looking at an addition to their team. I turned out to be a good fit. I just decided to try it and see what happens. If I like it, then that's great. I just needed a bit of a change. After that, I've actually never looked back. I'm amazed that I didn't do that early on in my life. But it was really, really completely accidental.

Lee: That's a very cool story.

Larry: Yeah.

Leila: And scary at the same time, because if you think about how one decides what to do and what career to enter, like this was a fluke. If I hadn't met the individuals that started Algorithmics in Toronto, and if I wasn't talking about being interested in exploring other things, this really would not have happened. Perhaps it would have happened later, but it wouldn't have happened the way most people enter technology or move into working in software.

Larry: Yes. What technologies outside of what you're doing do you think are cool today?

Leila: You know, it's a bit funny to be asked that question, because in the field that I'm in, I'm in search. I always think all technologies are awesome. Everything that I see out there, you look at it and you think, "Oh my God, this is exciting, it's going to change A, B, or C." But I'm very focused on search. When I look at what I find really, really exciting that's outside of search, I have a tendency to look at any type of technology that allows us humans to analyze really, really, really large sets of information. Like, anything that allows us to visualize that. If you were able to get access to, I don't know, all the war, conflicts in the entire world for the past hundred years. If you had that kind of information, what tool could you use to visualize it? Tools for visualizing information, and also any type of tool that actually allows us to stay in touch and communicate better. When I think about that, and I think, tools like Twitter. But it's not the only thing. But I just think that communications and tools that facilitate communications are really, really transformational tools, for all kinds of purposes, whether it's a mobile device that allows you to sell goods or to stay in touch with family or to book an appointment or confirm something, those are pretty transformational technologies. At least, when I look outside of search, that's what I see.

Lee: I totally agree. It seems like with the ubiquitous use of cell phones that all have cameras, it's amazing what's going to images. People are taking pictures of coupons and the little scan codes...

Leila: Of everything.

Lee: Yeah.

Leila: Absolutely everything.

Lee: It's really exciting.

Leila: Yeah, we find that exciting and strange at the same time. But the reality is that our brains are actually wired to work with images. An image has far more impact on us than a word. If you look at an image and you see something in that, the impact of it is far greater than a word that's displayed to you. If I put a word in front of you and it says "famine" and I show you a photograph, they have very, very distinct and separate impacts.

Larry: It is worth a thousand words.

Lee: Yeah.

Leila: Just about, I think, yes. I think there is some truth to that, that's true.

Lee: Leila, I'm curious. You went from your plan to be a doctor, scientist mode, to a technologist. But why are you an entrepreneur? What is it about entrepreneurship that really excites you, makes you tick?

Leila: Well, that's something that I've always had. Like from the day I was born, I think, much to the dismay of my mom, I had this thing where I really wanted to do things on my own. I wanted to set my pace. I wanted to do things in particular ways. I didn't want to have anyone else dictate how this should be done, even if the way they are asking for something to be done is actually the correct way to do it. But I have this thing about wanting to figure things out on my own and then set a pace and then run to that pace. That was always there. Even when I was in med school, it was there, which was also a bit of a challenge in that kind of environment. For me, that was very, very critical. So when I started working in a software company and I realized that that's a fantastic environment, or technology is actually a fantastic industry for that, it just confirmed exactly what I always had, which was the desire to do something by myself and build the road and travel on that road. That's always been there. I didn't find it surprising when it materialized into building a firm, but it just took longer to get there.

Larry: After you get into the technology part, Leila, who are some of the people that maybe influenced you, supported you in your career path? Sometimes the word "mentors" is used.

Leila: Well, for me, it's a bit different, because as I said, I accidentally fell into technology. But once I was there, I figured that this is really something that I'm very, very interested in, so I wasn't really looking so much for encouragement or someone to facilitate that entry. It was pretty much like, roll up your sleeves and figure out what you need to get done, and figure out how to do it. Learn and learn as much as possible. Stay curious about what's happening around you and ask questions. But I couldn't really have done anything that I'm doing today if it wasn't for one single thing, and that to me has been very critical my entire life. That was really, really my mom's desire to make sure, and I'm not sure it's a desire, but the way she brought us up. It was this philosophy of, it didn't matter what you wanted to do. You just go ahead and do it. You might succeed, you might fail. But you shouldn't be questioning, "Can I do this? Will I be good at doing it?" It was like, today I call it overconfidence-building, because it went beyond just making sure that your children have the confidence to undertake or try anything. It was more about, don't let anything stop you from doing something. Actually, don't even ask what that could be. Just go and do it. And that was critical. That was very important. If I were to say, what can be encouraged or what people should have more of in their lives, it would be that. It would be really someone who completely encourages them to try pretty much anything that they want to try, and figure out the other pieces afterwards. There are, of course, a lot of people that you look at and then you think, "My goodness, these people are incredible." You really admire them. Like for me for example, Cheryl Sandburg, the CEO of Facebook. She would be a hero. She would be in my book somebody that I really admire. I'm sure everyone is familiar with, Takushi, who started as a biomedical engineer, but became, at least for me, because I was in the medical field, somebody who actually transformed the batteries used in defibrillators. In the time, and even today, to me, that was just fantastic. That was just incredible. Not necessarily individuals that I related to my field, but just people whose work I admire and who have accomplished so much.

Lee Kennedy: Wow. The takeaways I get is your mother basically gave you the confidence and courage that you could do anything. Then you're inspired by some of these other women that have just done really, really exciting things with their career. That's great.

Leila: My goodness, yes. You look at what they have accomplished and you just think, "wow. How can they have done all of that in such a limited time? That's so brilliant!"

Lee: Every time I do one of these interviews with Larry and Lucy, I get so excited and motivated. I leave that day just feeling like I could conquer the world. Thank you. Well, speaking of all that exciting stuff, I guess on the flip side of the coin, what's been the toughest thing you've had to do in your career so far?

Leila: Well, that would have been early in my career. When I started Idee, we actually didn't start as a pure software company. We did a lot of consulting work. We took on a lot of clients that had nothing to do, necessarily, with the world of image search and search technologies overall. That's simply because the company was not VC- backed. It was completely organic. Profits and revenues actually built the company, not outside financing. But at the time, we were taking on a tremendous number of consulting projects, and a tremendous number of new outside clients, a little bit away from our field. There were, generally, I think, great revenues, but it was going to, how do you say that, just keep us from releasing search products because we would be busy solving problems for customers, which was great at generating revenues, but not really working on search problems. I have to say that one of the toughest decisions was to sit down and simply say that we can no longer do that. We are not going to do that. We are going to bite the bullet and restructure the firm to move from a service company to an actual product company. When we did that, it was my decision as well to lay off a number of people that just didn't fit the vision of where the company needed to go. I have to say, reflecting back, that was one of the hardest decisions I had to make.

Larry: I'll say. Now if you were sitting down right now, across the table, across the desk, with a young person who is thinking about becoming an entrepreneur, what advice would you give them?

Leila: Well, I would say, don't do what I have done, which is sometimes, try to figure things as you are trying to solve a problem. Like, something I have lacked in the beginning of my career was looking at how other people have done things and learning from that. That's something that I've become much better at doing with our board, so figuring out, what is it that I'm good at, and what is it that I'm lacking? Is what I'm lacking something that I can learn, or is it something that I can get by talking to a number of people that have done that, and have done it very, very, very well. It's doing a little bit of an assessment early on, as you decide to become an entrepreneur and to build the company, just figure out what are the few things that you need to do better or learn, and figure out where to get that, and not wait until you are actually battling something to know or to figure out and reach out and try to get that expertise. That would be one thing. The second thing I would say, and I see that happening a lot, don't wait until tomorrow to start something.

Lee: That's great advice. It's always easy to think, "Oh, I'll get to that."

Leila: Yeah, exactly. Or you know what, this is a really great idea. Let me think about it a little bit longer. Then before you know it, a whole year has gone. Just do it.

Lee: Well, along that same vein, you had spoken earlier about how you've always felt this entrepreneurial spirit. What would you say are the personal characteristics you have that have given you an advantage as an entrepreneur?

Leila: I think about it as a great characteristic to have. Other people might think about it as something that's pretty awful. It's just one of these things. It's just like, giving up, to be honest, is just absolutely not part of my DNA. It's not part of my vocabulary. It's just like, it's not there.

Lee: That's probably the most important thing, because being an entrepreneur, you face so many roadblocks. Yeah, that's awesome.

Leila: But sometimes you have to, and I still haven't learned that. I'm sure I need another 10 years. Sometimes you have to stand down and then just give up because something is not going to work. But I have to say, the one saving grace is just exactly that, like, no desire to give up. It's not part of my makeup or who I am. It doesn't even exist.

Larry: Yeah, I'm going to have to look up the word "give up" in the dictionary. I don't know what it means either.

Leila: There you go, exactly. That's what I should be saying. Exactly.

Larry: All right, Leila, I have to ask this. With all the things that you're doing and working on and starting up, how do you do bring balance in your personal and professional lives?

Leila: Oh my goodness, Larry. You guys had to ask that question. I don't. I have to be honest. I don't. I don't even try. I know things will fall apart when they do. Then I'll deal with that then. I don't even try.

Lee: Well, good for you. You sound like you know yourself.

Leila: Exactly. I just like my life, and I know this. I'm a workaholic. My life is very chaotic. It's very fast. It's at times a bit disorganized. At times it's difficult for other people to deal, because I have a lot of balls in the air, and that doesn't change. But I would be lying if I actually said that I look at trying to introduce balance in my life or figure out how to lead a balanced life, because it's just not my personality. I look at things that I'm interested in, and I'm interested in doing them, and I just do them. If it ends up being too much, then I adjust as I'm doing things. But yeah, it's probably something I will have to learn.

Lee: Well, good for you. So far it sounds like it's worked.

Larry: You bet. If we have a class on that, we'll let you know.

Leila: Awesome, yes. I'll attend.

Lee: Well, last question we have for you. You've achieved so much in your career. What do you see as next? What's down the road for you?

Leila: Well, I'm not very good at looking at the future and predicting, thank God, actually, what may or may not happen. But I know one thing. I will speak again from a business point of view and from what I'm doing currently that is work-related, because that's a very, very big focus. We're just in the very, very early days of search. Everyone has spent the last decade typing keywords into a field to basically get search results. That is actually being enhanced by image searching, by mobile searching, by augmented reality. We are just getting better and better tools to find the needle in the haystack. For me, at least when I think about it, from a research perspective and a software development perspective, these are incredibly early days. My work's not done. I could be working on this for the next couple of decades. This is not really something that I would consider as, "Hey, achieved check mark, and let's move on to something else." It is really the early days of that. Short answer, I'm looking forward to more of the same.

Larry: We're going to follow you, too.

Leila: That would be great.

Lee: That's great.

Larry: You betcha. Leila, I want to thank you for joining us today. You listeners out there, pass this interview along to others that you know would be interested. They can listen to it at w3w3.com, and ncwit.org 24-7. Download it as a podcast and we'll have it on the blog also.

Leila: I will, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.

Larry: Thank you.

Lee: Thank you, Leila. [music]